Friday, August 27, 2010

"Tadzhik is Persian-Farsi transliterated with Russian letters," Safar replied. "But nothing good ever came of it. They took away the old alphabet and thus cut the Tadzhik people off from their ancient history and culture. This monstrously sly Bolshevik act did terrible damage to the national culture of the Tadzhik people. Why? Because letters are culture-producing for a Tadzhik. Can you imagine Pushkin writing in Russian but with Arabic ligatures? That would be crazy, wouldn't it? But this nightmarish experiment was conducted in the U.S.S.R. on many peoples, Tadzhiks among them. I believe that it was a cunning policy."
Languagehat on Marat Akchurin's Red Odyssey: A Journey Through the Soviet Republics, the rest here.

Thursday, August 26, 2010


A nationwide hunt was launched today for a tiny Mediterranean snail which has turned up in the UK after stowing away on stonework imported as Victorian "bling" more than a hundred years ago.

The snail, which has no English name, hitched a ride from Europe on statues, rocks and brickwork in the 19th century – but remained hidden from naturalists until recently.

It was discovered at the National Trust's Cliveden estate in Buckinghamshire by volunteers cleaning statues in the gardens in 2008.

The snail, Papillifera bidens, was thought to have arrived on a balustrade from the Villa Borghese in Rome in 1896, and with suitably snail-paced progress seems to have taken more than a hundred years to reach stonework 60 yards away.


Sunday, August 22, 2010

vive la différance

As for the French writers, artists and actors who mixed in German circles, what comes across most strikingly is their ­vanity, self-centredness and lack of deeply held convictions about anything. In this sense they seem not too different from the Paris brothel-keeper who, once the war was over, reflected: “I am almost ashamed to say it, but I never had so much fun in my life. But it is the truth, those nights during the Occupation were fantastic.”
Tony Barber on the French Resistance at the FT


Already a cult text among gold enthusiasts and inflation phobes (old copies of the original hardback were until recently trading at up to £1,800 each on the web), it received a further boost when it was revealed in a Sunday newspaper at the time of the relaunch that the book was admired by the US investor, Warren Buffett, and recommended by him to others. It seemed to confirm Fergusson as the sage to whom the Sage of Omaha himself turned.

The claim guaranteed the book a lot of attention and Fergusson found himself being summoned to give his views about the economic situation on the BBC’s Today programme and the television news. This did not abate even after Buffett told CNN that he had not actually read the book. When Money Dies continues to be well-­reviewed and the sales pile on.

Fergusson is embarrassed and amused by the Buffett story which, it should be said, has never been repeated by him or his publisher to market the book. “My daughters call it Buffettgate, which I like very much,” he says. The claim, he tells me, came from a Dutch hedge fund manager who attended the launch party, having purchased 200 copies, which he said he would give to every member of the Dutch parliament and some top-flight bankers.

“He told me that it was a cult among high-powered financiers,” says Fergusson, who remains mystified how the story found its way into the paper. “Buffett does now have the book and has thanked my publisher for sending it to him,” he adds. “He may now have read it; we can only guess.”

Adam Fergusson, author of When Money Dies, has lunch with the FT.

Friday, August 20, 2010

There remains, however, William H. Gass’ Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation; Roger Hahn’s painstakingly-researched Pierre Simon Laplace 1749-1827: A Determined Scientist, for some reason apparently only available in hardcover at the embarrassingly low price of $33.60. There remains Schonberg’s Lives of the Great Composers, something no self-respecting music-lover should be without; Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, something I should apparently have read at least twice by now; Danto’s Transfiguration of the Commonplace; Ilya Prigogine’s End of Certainty. Not to mention the necessity for a solid French dictionary in order to begin remedying the great embarrassment of having some command of French and three well-worn volumes of Proust on the shelf in English translation. And of course the Proust in French, then. And if that, then also Les Essais de Montaigne and Jacques Le Fataliste. There is Kотлован, there is белый. There is the fact that some sort of small book-light must be bought if I am to continue being able to see at all.

Dedicated Bookstore Employee at Etrusk

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Unlike most authors I find that the date of publication invariably coincides with the moment when my loathing for my book reaches its maximum intensity; I should prefer everybody to ignore it, and this time it seems probable that I shall get what I want. But real writers probably do not have, and in any case couldn’t afford, this kind of stage-fright.
Frank Kermode contemplating the suspension of the TLS in a piece that prompted the founding of the LRB

(Breaking the habits of a lifetime, that's KERmode, not KerMODE.)
I'm barely fifty pages into Terry Martin's The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 and it's already clear to me that this is one of those basic works of scholarship that everyone dealing with the field has to come to terms with. As Raymond Pearson writes in his detailed review (which, along with Martin's response, I urge anyone interested in the topic to read): "The Affirmative Action Empire is overwhelmingly a product of archive-based research. Martin's positively Herculean labours in six historical archives in Moscow and another two in Ukraine have been rewarded with a rich and abundant harvest of hitherto-inaccessible primary documentation." And the picture he puts together as a result is astonishing. Like everyone who's studied the Soviet Union at all, I was aware that each official nationality was awarded its own territory in which its language would be taught and its customs maintained, but I had no idea how complex the system had been. How many such territorial units do you think there were? Fifty, a hundred, a few hundred? At its peak, tens of thousands.
Languagehat on rainirovanie

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Liège is, however, very much the sort of city I like - sombre, industrial, topographically melodramatic, utterly modern, and, occasionally, revolutionary, with a tendency to Jacquerie, General Strikes and such. None of these things are very popular at the moment, alas, so Liège is undergoing some tentative attempts to pull architecture tourists. And so there I went.
Owen Hatherley in Belgium
Obituary of Frank Kermode in the Guardian.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Statisticians hate small numbers (samples); now there is another reason to hate small numbers. In one word, scams.

The FTC has shut down a scam in which the crooks have sneaked through 1.35 million fraudulent credit-card charges, each valued at $0.25 to $9 -- after letting it run for four years. What's shocking is that less than 5% of the victims (78,724) noticed and reported the charges. So, instead of stealing $1 million from one person, steal $1 from a million.

Kaiser Fung on Small Numbers and Scams
Granger causality is a standard statistical technique for determining whether one time series is useful in forecasting another. It is important to bear in mind that the term causality is used in a statistical sense, and not in a philosophical one of structural causation. More precisely a variable A is said to Granger cause B if knowing the time paths of B and A together improve the forecast of B based on its own time path, thus providing a measure of incremental predictability. In our case the time series of interest are market measures of returns, implied volatility, and realized volatility, or variable B. . . . Simply put, Granger's test asks the question: Can past values of trader positions be used to predict either market returns or volatility?
A report on Granger causality, discussed by Andrew Gelman at Statistical Modeling...

I have nothing to say on the particulars, as I have no particular expertise in this area. But in general, I'd prefer if researchers in this sort of problem were to try to estimate the effects of interest (for example, the amount of additional information present in some forecast) rather than setting up a series of hypothesis tests. The trouble with tests is that when they reject, it often tells us nothing more than that the sample size is large. And when they fail to reject, if often tells us nothing more than that the sample size is small. In neither case is the test anything like a direct response to the substantive question of interest.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

the pooch in the hall

In short, for a serious cartoonist, a dog is not so much a warm, cuddly comfort as a self-inflicted wound.
Joe Sacco at NY Times Book Review on his four-legged 'friend'.
But if it can’t be said exactly how Shakespeare happened, there are contexts that help to throw light. I want to glance at two of them here. Sixteenth-century Europe was changed by two movements: Shakespeare was the product of both Renaissance and Reformation. If his extraordinary generation of writers was not mute and inglorious, some of the credit has to go to the heroic humanist educators, headed by Erasmus and More. The New Learning, reaching back to classical literary and linguistic resources, and taught in grammar schools and universities, brought into Tudor life a formal principle of reasoning intelligence, mediated through language. In the course of the century, literacy in England rose sharply and hugely. In its immense effectiveness, this educational change could even be said to have exceeded its ends: first in the rhetorical and stylistic games of patterning that took over the writing of the time, and second in the fact that many graduates could find no employment. The 1590s, plague-struck and famine-ridden, saw university-trained men moving faute de mieux into the new London theatres, underpaid but not (most of them) actually starving.
Barbara Everett on Shakespeare at the LRB
There is much more of interest here. I would describe this as a major, still uninternalized lesson of the recent crisis, with its roller coaster-rapid dips. In a highly specialized modern economy, it is much easier to prevent jobs from being destroyed than to create them again, at least assuming those are "good" jobs in the first place. (Yes, people thought they knew this but it's an even stronger difference than had been believed.) The U.S. auto bailout, for instance, worked better than did most of the stimulus program.
Tyler Cowen on Nicholas Kulish at the NYT, on recent German economic success and expansion of a program to keep workers employed, rather than dealing with them once they'd lost their jobs
Trevor Butterworth interviews Lorin Stein, editor of the Paris Review, at Lunch with the FT.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The books continued not to appear

Trevor-Roper was captured by the second, and married into the first. Enemies invariably called him ‘arrogant’. But it seems that he was never quite confident that he belonged in either world; he took on their manner with an exaggerated relish that suggests insecurity. In this, he was unlike the much tougher A.J.P. Taylor, who came to Oxford from middle-class Lancashire and was able to view the place with affectionate detachment. Taylor got on sturdily with his work. Trevor-Roper let himself be drawn into energy-sapping college intrigues, academic beauty contests and professional vendettas. Other scholars took part in all that, but still managed to finish their books. For all his brilliance, and his bursts of intensive research, Trevor-Roper allowed his diligent affectation of an Old Oxford style to dilute his sense of purpose.
Neal Ascherson at the LRB on Hugh Trevor-Roper

Gay liberation made its way, strangely, into the seminaries. I have a letter from a friend, an Irish writer, sent in response to a piece I wrote for this paper about the Ferns Report, describing his visit to an Irish seminary in the 1980s.[*] Since the Church was liberalising at that time, it would not have been unusual for writers to be invited to seminaries to speak. My friend had no intention of being shocking, or amusing. He spoke about literature, choosing the dullest subject for the seminarians. What he noticed among them, however, was anything but dull; and it surprised him greatly. He saw an immense amount of male fluttering; he listened as young candidates for the priesthood, boys from rural Ireland, attempted Wildean witticisms; he noticed them wearing specially tailored soutanes, moving around each other, excitedly, like a flock of girls. Here it was, and he was not the only one to witness it: ‘the takeover of the seminaries by homosexuals’.

But this was merely what it looked like. What such a seminary would have looked like a generation or two earlier, or indeed a century or two earlier, was as much an illusion as what my friend witnessed. Before the creation of a post-Stonewall gay identity and the presence of gay role models on television and in the movies, most gay men worked out a strategy, in early adolescence, to do a perfect, lifelong imitation of a straight man, to move around in that gruff, rangy way straight men had invented for themselves. For many homosexuals, the stereotype of the mincing, high-pitched queen was the most frightening idea that ever walked towards them. They hated it and feared it and worked out ways not to look like that themselves, or to be invisible when they did so.

Colm Toibin at the LRB on The Pope is Not Gay, by Angelo Quattrocchi


But it’s a fact of life, in your late teens and early twenties, that’s just what people do: they go out.

Taylor Plimpton, at the Paris Review blog

Sapir-Whorf and ggplot2

To some degree, we are constrained in our ability to solve problems if we only know a single language. This situation has been recognized different ways by the programming community. The Logo programming language was built based upon constructionist learning theory and was intended to provide a “mental model” for children to come to understand mathematical constructs. In recent times, many programmers have committed to being polyglots, learning new languages as a part of professional development. Their concern is not always to learn the latest language that they will need to work, but to find out new ways of conceptualizing problems and structuring solutions.
R Chart on language and thought and ggplot2
ESPN's Bill Simmons (aka The Sports Guy) recently suggested that the primary cause of dwindling interest in Red Sox games by fans is that baseball games these days are too long. "It's not that fun to spend 30-45 minutes driving to a game, paying for parking, parking, waiting in line to get in, finding your seat ... and then, spend the next three-plus hours watching people play baseball", he says.

Erm, I always thought the reason I thought baseball games were too long was that I was not interested in baseball. Had not considered the possibility that a 3-hour game might put off people who actually liked the game.
Revolutions (New about R &c) offers a plot in ggplot2 to determine, anyway, whether the data support the claim that games are getting longer.

that clinking clanking sound

In a letter to the editor in 1988, literary critic Eddie Dow tried to set the record straight:

In 1926 Fitzgerald published one of his finest stories, ''The Rich Boy,'' whose narrator begins it with the words ''Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.''

Ten years later, at lunch with his and Fitzgerald's editor, Max Perkins, and the critic Mary Colum, Hemingway said, ''I am getting to know the rich.'' To this Colum replied, ''The only difference between the rich and other people is that the rich have more money.'' (A. Scott Berg reports this in ''Max Perkins, Editor of Genius.'') Hemingway, who knew a good put-down when he heard one and also the fictional uses to which it could be put, promptly recycled Colum's remark in one of his best stories, with a revealing alteration: he replaced himself with Fitzgerald as the one put down.
Kottke, ht MR

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Richard Morgan on freelancing at The Awl.
Via MR, video of British town that turned its traffic lights off:

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

doing the decent thing

Colleen Lindsay wraps upat FinePrint Literary Management.

Thank you

When I got home from my German class today an envelope had come in the post. I opened it. An anonymous reader had sent me many, many, many, many euros.

This is unbelievably kind of you. Thank you very much.

My other Carter story comes from a conversation I had a couple years ago with an economist who's about my age, a man who said that one reason he and his family moved from town A to town B in his metropolitan area was that, in town B, they didn't feel like they were the only Republicans on their block.

Anyway, this guy described himself as a "Jimmy Carter Republican."

Me: You mean you liked Carter's policies on deregulation?

Him: No. I mean that Jimmy Carter made me a Republican.

Andrew Gelman at Statistical Modeling

Sometimes when I do turn it over, the situation actually get worse, because that's God's plan for their lives. They may need the pain in order to learn and to realize the problem. They may have to get worse in order to reach out for help.

So, now when I turn a situation over and it gets worse, I don't have to rush in and try to "save" the day. I can sit back and say, "Go, God... do your thing!" Because I know he's got a better plan, and His plan is better for them than anything I ever came up with and He can put that plan in to work very nicely without my help or interference!

Al-Anon Topic: Control

Monday, August 9, 2010

Amazon has some terrific podcast interviews of Joe Sacco, whose Footnotes in Gaza has recently been published.
In his interview with Robert McCrum of the Guardian, DeLillo said his parents came from the Abruzzi, they wanted him to be an American, they had no desire for him to learn Italian.

In A Hermit in Paris, Calvino includes an essay on his visit to the United States. It was at the time when, he told his minders at Einaudi, people were excited by a book about a teenage boy by a writer called J D Salinger. He comments on the books available to immigrants. Some immigrants come from educated backgrounds; they end up having a bookstore to serve their needs. There are no Italian bookstores, he says: the Italian immigrants were illiterate peasants, they were excluded from literary culture in their country of origin and have no stake in participating in it in the new country.

If I remember this correctly, Jonathan Galassi, President of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, first engaged with Italian literature at Cambridge; this was a Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment. (Galassi has now translated the work of both Montale and Leopardi.)

This looks like a failure of -- something. I would have said, it is not the business of, as it might be, the modestly aspiring parents of DeLillo to offer their son the sort of opportunity Galassi got as a Marshall Scholar at Cambridge. It is the business of the educational system to offer students access to the life of the mind, regardless of what their parents may be able to offer; this ought to include access to great works of literature in a language from whose cultural resources their parents had been excluded.
- His friends and loved ones wonder why he has such a complexly dark relationship to his own physicality, even his corporeal mortality. If in an interview he were to be asked about it, he would simply say “Try growing up deep in the shadow of a degenerative disease and then get back to me.” He would then pause, take a drink, and then continue: “Oh, and Roman Catholicism.”


- Now the relationship to the television in the corner. Think of the television people, where they are, the studio, the cameras, the air conditioning. All only to place a human animal, animals in pairs, to chat silently above the scrolling sports scores here.

ads without products
Courtesy MR, Keith Hennessey on The Roles of the President's White House economic advisors. Tyler Cowen is right to say: to excerpt would be to diminish the impact. Read the whole thing.
Literature helps me to live, but wouldn’t it be truer to say that it furthers this sort of life? Which of course doesn’t imply that my life is any better when I don’t write. On the contrary, then it’s much worse, quite unbearable, and with no possible remedy other than madness.

Kafka to Brod, courtesy ads without products

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Frederick Brooks, author of The Mythical Man-Month, talks about his new book, The Design of Design, on Wired:

Brooks: Great design does not come from great processes; it comes from great designers.

Wired: But surely The Design of Design is about creating better processes for great designers?

Brooks: The critical thing about the design process is to identify your scarcest resource. Despite what you may think, that very often is not money. For example, in a NASA moon shot, money is abundant but lightness is scarce; every ounce of weight requires tons of material below. On the design of a beach vacation home, the limitation may be your ocean-front footage. You have to make sure your whole team understands what scarce resource you’re optimizing.


Wired: You’re a Mac user. What have you learned from the design of Apple products?

Brooks: Edwin Land, inventor of the Polaroid camera, once said that his method of design was to start with a vision of what you want and then, one by one, remove the technical obstacles until you have it. I think that’s what Steve Jobs does. He starts with a vision rather than a list of features.

Jacket copy has a list of 20 classic works of gay literature. Renaud Camus's Tricks and Robert Gluck's Jack the Modernist are nowhere to be seen. As far as I can see, rather a lot of books on the list made the cut because they figured in obscenity trials, rather than because they were actually good. Nicht zu fassen.
Extraordinary portfolio of photographs by R. Kolewe.
David Levinson on editors who edit the book they wish they'd bought.
Robert McCrum interviews DeLillo at the Guardian.
With seeming effortlessness, Keilson performs the difficult trick of showing how a single psyche can embrace many contradictory thoughts, and how naturally extreme intelligence and sensitivity can coexist with obtuseness, denial and self-deception. To say that reading this novel makes it impossible not to understand how so many European Jews underestimated the growing menace of ­Nazism is to acknowledge only a fraction of its range. In fact the novel shows us how human beings, in any place, at any time, protectively shield themselves from the most frightening truths of their private lives and their historical moment.
Francine Prose at NY Times Review of Books on Hans Keilson's The Death of the Adversary and Comedy in a Minor Key.

valedictory address

I am graduating. I should look at this as a positive experience, especially being at the top of my class. However, in retrospect, I cannot say that I am any more intelligent than my peers. I can attest that I am only the best at doing what I am told and working the system. Yet, here I stand, and I am supposed to be proud that I have completed this period of indoctrination. I will leave in the fall to go on to the next phase expected of me, in order to receive a paper document that certifies that I am capable of work. But I contest that I am a human being, a thinker, an adventurer - not a worker. A worker is someone who is trapped within repetition - a slave of the system set up before him. But now, I have successfully shown that I was the best slave.

Valedictorian speaks out

“The historian’s task is not to disrupt for the sake of it, but it is to tell what is almost always an uncomfortable story and explain why the discomfort is part of the truth we need to live well and live properly,” he told Historically Speaking. “A well-organized society is one in which we know the truth about ourselves collectively, not one in which we tell pleasant lies about ourselves.”

Tony Judt
, who has died at 62, quoted in the NY Times Book Review

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Narzißmus der kleinen Differenzen

This is one of the most intense, bitter and personalized exchanges that I've ever seen in the scientific or technical literature. And it doesn't fit either of the usual explanations for such debates.

Since the subject matter is mathematics, it seems to contradict Benford's Law of Controversy: "Passion is inversely proportional to the amount of real information available". And since neither Simon nor Mandelbrot represented a grouping or sect, whether mathematical or social, there's no evidence here for Freud's "Narzißmus der kleinen Differenzen" (Chapter 5 of Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, translated as Civilization and its Discontents, 1930)

… it is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and in ridiculing each other — like the Spaniards and Portuguese, for instance, the North Germans and South Germans, the English and Scotch, and so on. I gave this phenomenon the name of 'the narcissism of minor differences', a name which does not do much to explain it. We can now see that it is a convenient and relatively harmless satisfaction of the inclination to aggression, by means of which cohesion between the members of the community is made easier.

Mark Liberman
at Language Log on Herbert Simon & Benoit Mandelbrot, re HS's paper "On a class of skew distribution functions"

Lunch with the FT: Emily Stokes has lunch with Lydia Davis.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

What “Mentor” is really about, though, is the slow-motion derailment of Mr. Grimes’s own once promising literary career, a process that took his pride before it took his sanity. This is a book about striding up to the brink of success, only to have success disembowel you with a dull steak knife, bow, and then skip away, cackling.
Dwight Garner at NYT on Tom Grimes
Once I began to take Prozac, I lost my ability to make metaphors. My thinking became literal; I couldn’t make connections between seemingly disconnected phenomena. The voices grew silent. Now that I’m on three psych meds -- two mood stabilizers and an antidepressant -- sustaining a fictional mask is more difficult for me. Over the course of several years, I had to invent an entirely new style, or voice, that was in synch with my new brainwaves. Nonfiction, particularly the personal essay and, of course, the memoir, seem much more suited to my psyche’s newfound “stability.” My moods no longer swing drastically. Now, I know who I’ll be the next day. For a long time, I didn’t. Once the internal voices were silenced, my voice was all I had left. Applying it to nonfiction suddenly clicked for me. I understood how I needed to write. My previous style is history.
Tom Grimes at Bookslut
Imagine that French were a dead language.

I could just as well have said: Represent that to yourselves, French, a dead language.

And in some archive of paper or stone, on some roll of microfilm, we could read a sentence. I read it here, let it be the opoening sentence of this introductory address, for example this: "One might say that we represent something (nous sommes en représentation).

Are we sure we know what this means, today? Let us not be too quick to believe it.

ht Woods Lot, the rest here ht aaargh

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

And then, between 1929 and 1932, he was sent on a number of journeys through central and southern Russia. Other writers who visited collective farms did so as members of Writers' Brigades—and they, of course, were shown only a few model collective farms. Platonov, however, was sent by the People's Commissariat of Agriculture, and he saw what was really happening.
That experience complicated his optimism. He seems still to have retained a belief that the shining communist future was a possibility, but having seen the stupidity, inefficiency, corruption, and brutality that were everywhere on the ground, no matter what the Kremlin planners might intend, he had to respond, to tell the truth as he saw it, and that response involved a complex and brilliant manipulation of the very language the Kremlin used to propagate its ideas. Characters are always talking about "directives" and "backwardness" and "tempo," regurgitating the catchwords that ceaselessly bombard them from Party organizers, "plenipotentiaries," and other emissaries from officialdom. One of them asks: "Is it really sorrow inside the whole world—and only in ourselves that there's a five-year plan?" The five-year plan inside us is one of the things the novel is about; some of the characters are trying to fulfill it by constant work, others by denunciations and violence, and the main viewpoint character, Voshchev, by questioning and introspection, irritating pretty much everyone else (as Platonov irritated the Party, despite his professed devotion to its ideals). By the time the novel heads into increasingly surreal-seeming and deadly territory, you're so accustomed to the strangeness of the telling that you can't escape its spell.
Languagehat on The Foundation Pit

Monday, August 2, 2010

Rajiv Sethi has a terrific post on David Blackwell, of whom the Texan wife of the department head at Berkeley said: I'm not having that darky in my house.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

More conversations and emails.

I say the wrong thing.

Life is unfair.

People who work very hard and do the right thing sometimes go under: the systems that are in place don't always ensure that people who have done the right thing will survive. We can then decide to try to do something about it or look the other way. If we do something about it we may ourselves end up in the position of going under: the cost to an individual of rectifying an injustice is often prohibitive.

Life is unfair.

Back in late 2001 my publishers made a terrifying $150,000 accounting error in their own favour on my royalties statement. I had just had a meeting with an agent who had said she would introduce me to new editors. My publishers had offered $500,000+ for a new 2-book deal including world rights; this terrifying royalties snafu was one of the reasons this was non-negotiable. I hired the agent and when the dust had settled I had met no new editors and also had no deal and it was pretty messy. I managed to get the royalties mistake sorted out so I did have money in the bank. I was doped up on anti-depressants.

I got an email saying one of my cousins was dying of lung cancer. I did not know him well; I was not sure whether it was sentimental to go and see him, but my cousin's family said they thought it would be a good thing. So I went out to California to see him.

This would have been, I think, early 2002 (anti-depressants not so good for the memory). My mind was in a a dull, quiet state where it was impossible to read. I think the flight was 22 hours; I sat in the seat looking quietly at the seat ahead. I wasn't bored, or restless, or impatient; it felt good to sit quietly.

Kelly had been a surfer when young. After too many arrests for DUI he lost his licence and I think was made to go to AA. He stayed sober for 20 years; we discovered after his death that he had been a popular, charismatic speaker within AA. In one recording he talked about discovering that he had a brain tumour as well as lung cancer. He had been staying at my uncle's house and had no transportation. He said he sat on the steps outside, saying: How can I get to AA. How can I get to AA. I've got to get to AA. After a while he decided to go back to the beginning and go through the 12 Steps. He worked through to Step 3 and resolved to leave everything in the hands of a Higher Power.

When I got there he was staying with his twin sister and her boyfriend, a vet, who had a house on the side of a mountain in an avocado grove. They had set up a hospital bed on the ground floor with an oxygen mask and a TV with a 24-hour golf channel.

If you've ever been very very sick you know what it's like to be very weak: you don't actually have enough energy to lie in bed, it's just that lying in bed takes less energy than anything else, so you lie in bed, exhausted by the effort of lying in bed. That was the state he had reached. He had no health insurance. Robin and John were looking after him; he was now increasingly weak and confused because of the brain tumour, so he could not be left alone. John was an overworked, debtridden vet; the twin, Robin, worked in the practice; they were both overextended, but they were also looking after Kelly. Everyone was worried and exhausted.

A problem had come up. John's partner wanted to retire, so he wanted to be bought out of the practice. Under California state law, the value of the practice was assessed on gross rather than net income. The practice showed no profits - they had taken on a lot of debt to invest in new equipment - but that did not, of course, affect the value of the practice under law. So John needed to come up with a lot of money he did not have to buy out his partner, and it looked as though they would simply need to sell out and John would lose his business and have to start from scratch.

I did not really want to do another deal with my publishers, who had been so bad to work with in the past, but in the circumstances this seemed self-indulgent: $525,000 had been their opening offer. So I said I would be happy to help if necessary. I went back to Berlin, and then to London. Since things had gone badly wrong with the last agent I was nervous of bringing in a new one; I asked a friend connected with Miramax, someone I knew my editor liked, to talk to my editor, and I told her what to say. (I was worried about handling this myself because I was doped up on anti-depressants and barely able to talk.)

My cousin died shortly after I returned to England. I was still in talks with my friend when I got an emergency email from John. His partner had kept such bad records that the practice was not in a position to get financing from a bank, so John would in fact need to find funding elsewhere. The CPA handling the transaction now said that it would fall through if the money was not on hand by the end of the week. John's uncle had offered to put up half the money; John asked if I could put up the other $100,000.

I would, of course, rather have waited until my deal was solidly in place, but I had been told this was an emergency. So I sent John a cheque for $100,000, which left me with a few thousand. Meanwhile my friend talked to my editor.

For reasons that remain unclear, my friend decided to replace the things I had asked her to say with something completely different. (She told me this after the meeting, when it was too late to do anything about it.) There were all sorts of misunderstandings which I won't go into, the deal fell through again, and everyone was outraged.

This was very bad news, because tax had not been paid on the money I had sent John and there was no way of knowing when more money would come in. In the long run this would turn out to be a professional disaster from which (as it looks now) I would never recover. I talked to an agent about the books I wanted to write and what I needed for them and he said No Publisher Will Allow, I would have to self-publish. The Inland Revenue started demanding taxes and threatening legal action and insisting that if there was a problem I must come in and talk to someone. I was not able to talk. I sent my accountant an email explaining that I was clinically depressed and at risk of suicide and he said he did not think the Inland Revenue would be sympathetic. I made enquiries about getting committed to a mental institution and was told it was difficult to get committed to a residential facility.

It seemed to me that the best plan might be to commit a crime, some sort of crime that would entail a prison sentence, as one does not generally need to go through a lot of red tape to go to jail. This struck me as an absolutely brilliant idea (presumably the Inland Revenue would not pursue me in jail), but at the same time I could not help being aware that many people would see this as insane, and I could not help feeling that the very fact that the idea struck me as absolutely brilliant, the solution to all my problems, might in itself be a mark of insanity. Barclaycard sent me some credit card cheques with 6 months interest-free credit; I called them and got them to raise my credit card limit and sent Inland Revenue a cheque. (I could not quite see why Inland Revenue could not just charge me 29.4% APR or some such thing.) I came off the anti-depressants and went back to secretarial work. So it was rather unfortunate that my friend had felt unable to say what I had asked her to say.

I did, as I've said, end up negotiating a new deal with my editor in 2003, he promised a designer, I moved to New York, he refused to honour the contract. Bad news.

Now, sending John a cheque for $100,000 would have been generous, but not insanely generous, if my deal had gone through. It would was an act of hypererogatory virtue - but he himself had done something much harder, much more generous, which was to look after someone dying of lung cancer. Kelly was a close friend of John's, but this was still an act of extraordinary generosity. The burden would not have been so heavy if the US had a proper healthcare system; John stepped in to fill that gap, and he now stood to lose everything he had worked for. He was an absolutely amazing guy, and I did not want to see that happen.

Talking to my editor, on the other hand, and relaying accurately the things I wanted in the deal, do not strike me as particularly taxing, let alone examples of exceptional generosity. It was not complicated; it came at no cost to the person concerned; had my friend felt able to do as she was asked, I would have had to work with people who were hard to work with, but I would not have faced financial disaster. So, you know, life is unfair.

Honouring the terms of a contract, again, is not an example of hypererogatory virtue. This is not an example of my editor doing me a favour, or showing exceptional generosity: this is an example of my editor complying with terms that are legally binding. Breaking the contract is an example of my editor being not just an unmitigated little shit but grossly dishonest. Life is unfair.

Paying royalties on sales of hardback books, again, is not an example of hypererogatory virtue. The publishers had made a profit on the book before it was published; they had sold 20,000 or so copies in hardback and owed me money. Paying it is not an example of doing me a favour, let alone exceptional generosity: this is an example of someone in the bowels of the royalties department accurately inputting data in a spreadsheet (which is what people in royalties are paid to do), rather than making a complete cock-up of it, so that a cheque in the appropriate amount is generated when the statement is sent out. Thereby obviating the need to hire an agent just to get paid. Life is unfair.

Life is really unfair, because we have before us an example of a much better career move.

Comparisons are odious.
Invidious comparisons are especially odious.

Let's not be odious.

The problem is.

There are forms of generosity I am able to recognise as improbable.

It would astound me if a reader were to write and offer me $100,000.
It would astound me if a reader were to offer me a year's accommodation, rent-free, in a second home that's unoccupied.

I am able to recognise these as offers that are wildly unlikely to come my way.

There are other forms of assistance that strike me as well within the realm of possibility.

If a reader recommends an agent, it seems straightforward for the reader to provide all information known to the reader. This looks like something that would take 10 minutes of the reader's time.

This turns out to be as wildly improbable as making me a gift of $100,000. I didn't know that.

Suppose I have, on the one hand, readers blundering into my life with unhelpful suggestions and, on the other hand, readers making me a gift of $100,000. The blunderers are not a problem.

But suppose I have a string of blunderers and no gifts of $100,000. Each blunderer wipes out a couple of years.

It's hard to be sane.

This is, without a doubt, unspeakably dull. I apologise. There's the faint hope, I'm afraid there really is the faint hope, not that a reader will give me $100,000, but that the blunderers might, with a rare glimmer of compassion, refrain.
What children, in fact all of us at any age, find frightening is unreliability and emotional coldness. The idea that you can't affect someone, that you can't see where they're coming from and can change tack at any moment.

Tilda Swinton on the White Witch of Narnia

I’ve remarked before that, once I became a practicing scientist, I realized I had taken all of the wrong courses as a student. Although I started out as a classical literature major, because I was interested in science, I took math, physics, chemistry, biology, biochemistry, biophysics and so on. I should have taken business administration, elocution, basic accounting, creative writing, speed-reading, politics, sociology and abnormal psychology. Now that I’m chair of a department, I really wish I’d taken abnormal psychology.

Greg Petsko, Plus the secret handshake